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Studies in American Fiction237 Hunt, George W. John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerman Publishing Company, 1983. 325 pp. Cloth: $17.95. Fiction being fiction, any critic or literary biographer spends his time trying to get past the apparent to the real. Lies like truth may disguise many actual truths. But always the disguise is an intentional one, the intent of art, which is to reveal only after initial deception and then only to those with patience, intelligence, sensitivity and skill to go past the face of what appears to be. This inherent nature of things artistic is perhaps the chief reason why the artist himself, however great his accomplishment, is by nature a con man, a fraud whose art often reverses itself and leaks illusion back into his personal life. Certainly there is no aspect of his life about which the writer of fiction is apt to be more devious, more reluctant to strip away the disguise represented by the surface, than his art. Among modern American writers, few have seemed more willing to talk about their work than John Cheever. In countless interviews throughout his long career, he waxed garrulous over such matters as the task of art and the artist, while in his fiction he not infrequently seems to pontificate, however charmingly, about life in general. Yet, as devoted readers of Cheever discover, this itself is a second surface, a diversion beyond which more arcane and frequently contradictory truths remain hidden. A man who talks too freely on such crucial matters as serious art is probably leading us to this second surface, which in fact is a second stage of artifice equally deceptive with the first. With Cheever, the simple, splendid values for which critics so often applauded him were certainly such a territory. Although he was something far more complex at bottom, he was no more a defender of modern suburban society than he was a profoundly religious thinker, yet he has often been uncertainly dismissed as a second rate Marquand or O'Hara and, in equally wobbly fashion, seen as a deeply committed Christian, Episcopalian, apologist. George W. Hunt's John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love makes a valiant effort to wind through to the private ground of Cheever's art but is caught in advance on that second surface. Taking Cheever at his word in his professions of religiosity, Hunt has written a book that often seems enmeshed in the Laoco├Ân coils of Cheever's apparent meanings. If one is to take Cheever very seriously, it is necessary to acknowledge almost immediately a certain set of contradictions inherent in his fictional lifestyle. These contradictions are so powerfully presented (even if sometimes humorously) that the reader must acknowledge them as inherent, the deeper life of the fiction rather than as something to be ironed out by choosing a higher truth which invalidates or, more often, allows us to ignore the less palatable side of the contradiction. It is this latter approach that religious interpretations tend towards, which is one reason why fiction tied too specifically to religious orthodoxy generally fails to go much beyond itself. Cheever does not get caught in that trap, but his critics often do, taking the shadow for the man, listening too closely to what characters say rather than what the story does. When a set of values that assume a spiritual redemption to be the aim of existence appears to be a possibility, the temptation to be caught up by them is a strong one. However, while Cheever loved to play with variations of established myth including both classical and Christian mythology, his use of them rarely involved the orthodoxy that a critic such as Hunt instinctively attributes to them in writing from a prior commitment of belief. For example, Hunt refers to one of the most amusing scenes in The Wapshot Scandal, the hiding of the prize easter eggs by the grocery boy, Emile, who is also the youthful lover of Melissa, and die frantic greed of the townswomen who are after the golden eggs. Hunt is accurate enough in calling attention to the parallels of the golden apples of discord in...


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pp. 237-239
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